The Man on the Street

The Man on the Street

Editor’s note: We’ve been accused of working for the airlines, and we’ve been berated for being too tough on them. It gets to the point where we lose track sometimes of who it is we actually DO work for.

The answer, of course, is that we work for you, the reader. We try to present the world of miles and points from your perspective. But really….who’s better qualified to present your perspective than you?

To that end, we’re pleased to present the following report. Two loyal readers of InsideFlyer had an opportunity to meet with Northwest program executives, and they wanted to pass the fruits of that meeting on to you.

So, without further ado…

Late in 2004, Paul (aka Radiocycle on flyertalk.com) and Charles (aka thezipper on flyertalk.com), flew to Minneapolis, Minn., and over a two-day period met with several members of the Northwest Airlines management team. Prior to the meeting, questions were solicited in the Northwest Airlines Forum of flyertalk.com covering issues dealing with the WorldPerks program, general in-flight concerns, as well as operational, call center, and customer service issues. While not every item had a tangible resolution, the Northwest Management team gave very candid responses and implied that several of our suggestions would be taken under serious consideration

Although the WorldPerks program is ever-changing, Northwest has stayed constant to the basic philosophy of maintaining membership loyalty. Northwest promotes status through yearly elite-level flying rather than the many incentives provided by other airlines such as lifetime elite status, Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) for ticket purchases, and rollover EQMs, which allow those who don’t fly/spend money with the airline to still maintain status but provide no benefit to the current loyal revenue base. While they offer targeted challenges to lower program levels, Northwest fiercely protects their highest elite tier. “Comping” to Platinum Elite is basically non-existent. These are Northwest’s most loyal customers and they merit additional benefits.

When asked regarding “unpublished benefits” for WorldPerks members, although no specifics were offered, they did mention that there are items in place to remove various headaches/hassles from some of the higher value passengers, to hopefully produce more loyalty.

As part of these additional benefits, WorldPerks has implemented the Platinum points program, which offers incentives to those top-tier elites who purchase high-revenue fares. Rewards include system-wide upgrades, complimentary lounge access and reduced redemption levels for award tickets. Broadening Platinum points to include lower fares is not currently being investigated as it is contrary to the promotion’s original intent.

WorldPerks has recently finalized an alliance with China Southern. This allows WorldPerks members to earn and redeem miles on flights operated by China Southern, taking members to Chengdu, Wuhan, Shenzhen and many other cities within China. A reciprocal lounge agreement was also reached, giving WorldClub members access to eight China Southern lounges throughout China.

Worldperks is also evolving its presence within SkyTeam. Integration into SkyTeam has started with the addition of SkyTeam codeshare flights into the electronic flight guides on the airline’s Web site. There are active ongoing discussions with Delta about reciprocity between programs and lounge agreements. The SkyTeam Elite/Elite Plus program levels may add some more tangible benefits such as booking preferred seating among partners, a year down the road, as the Delta agreement continues to expand and improve with much more possible in the future.

In keeping with its commitment to customer loyalty, WorldPerks currently has no plans to participate in the American Express Membership Rewards program. Northwest see this as simply: “Why should someone who has no loyalty to Northwest Airlines receive miles for the points they have in another loyalty program, and redeem them for awards, thus reducing the number of awards for loyal WorldPerks members?” The Membership Rewards program has the potential to significantly reduce WorldPerks award availability to popular destinations, which would hinder fulfilling the legitimate redemption needs of WorldPerk members.

Another example of WorldPerks’ commitment to customer loyalty was the termination of car rental partnerships with certain companies who chose to implement a $.50 per day charge to those who wanted to earn WorldPerk points. Passing on these costs to the Worldperks membership was simply unacceptable.

The Worldperks marketing team is always looking for ways to improve the program. Due to some discrepancies and difficulty in tracking points for the original Mileage Mania promotion, several versatile tracking tools were developed which allow members to monitor their posted points in point-based promotions. In the Mile-A-Palooza, Mile-A-Rama, and Mile-Zilla promotions, point totals were immediately available on NWA.com and the member could track more accurately their promotion point balances.

WorldPerks is continually working to customize the program and encourages individual members to provide input as to how their specific needs can be better met. WorldPerks has examined the concept of “a la carte” elite benefits, found the idea interesting and worth further study. While it may make the program more relevant to the individual, a la carte benefits might reduce the “basket of WorldPerks Elite benefits” from, for example, 20 usable benefits to 14 usable benefits, due to the individuality of the benefits received.

Northwest is improving its other products as well. The installation of a Wi-Fi system in Northwest’s WorldClubs is on schedule with the expectation to be operational by June 2005. This service is to be free for WorldClub members, and similar to that of Continental Airlines. Northwest is also investigating the option of “Quiet Zones” in some WorldClubs to allow members to relax or work without the interruption of television programming or cell phone use. Northwest has also made a conscious decision not to “give away” WorldClub membership due to elite status in order to prevent overcrowding of the clubs and dissatisfaction of Club members, which is not the atmosphere Northwest envisions. WorldClubs in LaGuardia and Minneapolis are scheduled for minor renovations this year. There are no major WorldClub “Makeovers” scheduled for 2005; however, showers for one of the Minneapolis WorldClubs are being considered.

WorldPerks is currently in the process of a significant upgrade to the “Award Booking” section of the Web site. The result will be greater access to partner awards, ease in bookings and calendar-type searches for award seats. While this will not result in more Northwest-operated WorldPerks award seat availability, to improve member satisfaction an automated wait list for international awards is being established. WorldPerks has a limited number of award seats, especially World Business Class (WBC) seats to international destinations. This comes partly due to Northwest’s decision to have an excellent WBC and no First Class on its International routes, coupled with seating quantity. This is most evident on routes where the Boeing 747-400 aircraft with 65 WBC seats has been replaced by the Airbus A330-300 aircraft with 34 WBC seats.

From time to time there will be bonuses that stimulate customers to try NWA.com, but as NWA.com is the leading product in the industry, promotions to use the Web site will not occur all the time. Another key element for earning WorldPerks Bonus Miles is that WorldPerks members must “Opt-In” to participate in most promotions. Prior to the start of most promotions a registration code and the member’s WorldPerks number must be entered via NWA.com to establish eligibility for specific promotions. WorldPerks has in the past year eliminated the need to phone in to the call centers or elite lines to register, by registering all promotions via the NWA.com Web site.

Having the opportunity to peek behind the scenes and meet many individuals at Northwest has proven very interesting and informative. Though they continue to deal with the cost of labor and high fuel prices, Northwest strives to improve its product and frequent flyer program for its members. Customer service, a hallmark of the organization, has remained a high priority, and there are no plans to move this department overseas, as has been the case with some other companies. Many of the recent changes at WorldPerks have been initiated to keep costs at a minimum to passengers. Northwest has taken a leadership position in the airline industry by automating and applying the latest technologies to drive down operating costs. Over the long term, these initiatives will position Northwest’s return to profitability and help it remain at the forefront of the global airline industry.

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